A recent NGO conference in Afghanistan, sponsored by Ottawa’s Peacebuild, explored various dimensions of reconciliation and the need for a comprehensive peace process. The following is an adaptation of my presentation on the role and functioning of multilateral military forces in the absence of such a process.

While the task at hand is to discuss the role of international military forces in “protecting a peace process,” the real focus is the way in which an effective and inclusive peace process is essential to “protecting” multilateral security and peace support operations.

One of the most difficult things to accept about military force, especially international forces that have peace and stability as their formal objective, is just how limited military might is when it tries to force stability. In popular discourse there is a tendency to assume that when everything else fails, when all political and diplomatic efforts have failed to resolve a conflict, we can still turn to military action as a last resort to finally get the job done.

But as Afghans know better than most, military forces, no matter how powerful or sophisticated, cannot ignore political and social contexts and cannot simply reshape reality to fit their own objectives. The presence of international forces obviously influences political outcomes, including peace negotiations, and they clearly achieve tactical objectives. But the lessons of history are legion in reminding us that tactical military victories don’t on their own win wars, or, more importantly, win the peace. For military forces to contribute to stability and peace, they depend on, and they need in turn to bolster, an enabling political, social, and cultural context.

This reality has been recognized by those who, through the UN, have extensive experience in managing international military forces. The UN has, therefore, established some basic principles or guidelines to inform and shape constructive international military interventions. The following explores five key realities emphasized in those UN guidelines and links them to issues related to comprehensive peace agreements.

1. Multilateral Peace Support Forces require strategic consent:  The first and central point is that the foundational principle of multilateral peace support interventions is that they are conceived of primarily as actions taken within the context of a negotiated political settlement or comprehensive peace agreement. This applies to all current UN-commanded operations. In particular, they include agreements through which all the key parties to a conflict give consent to the international forces. That is “strategic level consent,” and without it international forces risk moving from a peace support role to being a party to the conflict.

In other words, a comprehensive peace agreement which sanctions and mandates security forces orients those international and national forces in support of the new post-war political order.

This, to a large extent, describes the situation that obtained in Afghanistan in early 2002 when the Bonn process led to a peace agreement and the establishment of an interim government, along with electoral and other processes to legitimize that new government. It, of course, included provisions for a multinational peace support force, the International Security Assistance Force.

But there is one critically important dimension of the situation in Afghanistan, in the period immediately following the war that removed the Taliban Government of the day, which did not follow this archetypal formula. Most notably, the peace agreement did not include the political party or movement that had been in control of most of the country only a few months earlier – the assumption was that the Taliban had been vanquished. So the Bonn process did not meet the requirements for a fully inclusive or comprehensive peace agreement. As a consequence, it was almost inevitable that the strategic consent on which the multilateral forces relied would not be sustained.

The UN guidelines put it this way:[i] “in the absence of such consent, a [multilateral peace support] operation risks becoming a party to the conflict; and being drawn towards enforcement action, and away from its intrinsic role of keeping the peace” (Chapter 3, p. 32), or supporting the extension of state authority.

2. Strategic Consent does not obviate tactical combat:  While the first point emphasizes the centrality of strategic consent, given initially through a durable political accord, the second point is to acknowledge that such an accord, even if it is comprehensive and conclusive, cannot guarantee the end of all violence. Even with strategic consent for foreign forces in place, there can obviously still be challenges to the new order. Challenges in such circumstances are linked to the presence of spoilers – smaller pockets of resistance or even organized criminal elements eager to take advantage of the fragile situation and the absence of well-established security institutions.

“The fact that the main parties have given their consent to the deployment,” says the United Nations in the context of peacekeeping operations, “does not necessarily imply or guarantee that there will also be consent at the local level.” For example, the presence of armed groups not under the control of any of the key parties, or the presence of criminal operations, represent spoilers that must be dealt with by international and national security forces.

So a multilateral force that enjoys strategic consent may still be required to actively conduct tactical police and combat operations to apprehend or in some way deal with such spoilers – but, by virtue of the comprehensive peace agreement, the context should be one of broad public support for the newly established authority and support for operations to control the spoilers.

3. When tactical resistance erases strategic consent:  There comes a point, however, when tactical operations against spoilers escalate to such a level that they effectively nullify strategic consent. That is in effect the point at which the tactical operations become strategic level operations against a broad-based political opposition movement that can boast a significant constituency of political support. When that happens there has in reality been the de facto withdrawal of consent at the strategic level. And at that point the military operation has switched from a peace support operation to a peace enforcement operation – that is a war against insurgents.

When strategic consent is no longer present, multilateral forces can find themselves in full combat with a significant opposition force that can, with some credibility, claim to be fighting on behalf of a significant element of a population that has lost confidence in the political agreement produced by the original peace agreement.

That is arguably the story in Afghanistan since 2005.

4. Restoring or recovering strategic consent: History and a myriad of specific cases confirm that to rely heavily on greater force to recover national consensus and restore strategic consent simply doesn’t work. In other words, the loss of strategic consent is rarely reversed by military means alone, or even primarily. The basic reality is this: insurgencies with a significant base in part of the population are not readily amenable to military defeat.

Indeed, that is the conclusion of an oft-quoted Rand study – “How Terrorist Groups End.” Of 268 such groups that ended over a period of almost 40 years (1968-2006):[ii]

  • 40% “were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies”;
  • 43% “reached a peaceful political accommodation with their government” (in negotiations they moved to progressively narrower demands);
  • 10% won; and
  • In only 7%  of cases did “military force [lead] to the end of terrorist groups.”

Similarly, a University of Barcelona study looked at 80 civil and interstate armed conflicts, and, of those that ended during that period (just over half):[iii]

  • 15% ended through victory of one side or the other; and
  • The rest through negotiations.

 The noted British military commander of a variety of collective security operations, General Sir Rupert Smith, insists that no strategic objective can be achieved through military force alone. Military force can meet tactical objectives, but these must in turn serve a strategic plan that engages a much broader range of non-military measures to resolve conflict and to build conditions for a durable peace.[iv]

Thus, military force is not self-sufficient. It requires political, social, and law enforcement institutions to consolidate its gains, and its effectiveness is constrained by the environment in which it functions, just as the effectiveness of peacebuilding depends on the environment in which it is pursued. There are inescapable limits to the effectiveness of force that cannot be overcome simply by the application of greater force.[v]

It is a reality that seems now to be increasingly recognized by the leaders of the international forces operating in Afghanistan – commonly expressed through declarations that there is no military solution. That in turn points obviously to the need to refocus the political agenda on the renegotiation or recovery of strategic consent through a new comprehensive peace process.

5. Recovering strategic consent through a comprehensive peace process:  The key word here is process, because any peace accord, even when it is comprehensive, is not a once-and-for-all achievement. It needs to be constantly and continually renewed.

Again, the UN guidelines are instructive: “In the implementation of its mandate, a [peace support operation] must work continuously to ensure that it does not lose the consent of the main parties, while ensuring that the peace process moves forward.” (Chapter 3, p. 32)

But it is also a much larger point. The legitimacy of a new political order or new Government is not established once and for all – it is earned and renewed, or eroded, on a daily basis. But, equally important, the legitimacy of an international security assistance force must also be earned and renewed on a daily basis. The legitimacy of international forces is not established once and for all by a Security Council resolution; it is earned, and eroded, daily by virtue of the conduct and effectiveness of those forces.

Part of the premise of this conference is that, when strategic consent and national consensus are lost, central to their recovery must be a new and comprehensive peace process leading ultimately to a new political agreement or framework for a rejuvenated national consensus. As far as the question of multilateral military forces is concerned, the objective is a political context in which multilateral forces earn legitimacy through their daily conduct and operations, and in which strategic consent is reflected in broad public acceptance of security forces as peace support agents, not occupying forces. Within that political climate the population will recognize there is still a need to deal with spoilers, but it will also be clear that international forces are no longer engaged in an effort to militarily force the acquiescence of a national political/social constituency that finds itself outside the national consensus.


[i] United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines. United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Field Support. 2008.


[ii] Seth Jones, Jones, Seth G., and Martin Libicki, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida (Rand Corporation, 2008), 225 pp.


[iii] Fisas, Vicenç. 2008 Peace Process Yearbook. School for a Culture of Peace, University of Barcelona, 2008.

[iv] Smith, Rupert. The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. London, 2006.

[v] Regehr, Ernie. “Failed States and the Limits of Force: The Challenge of Afghanistan.” In Fragile States or Failing Development? Canadian Development Report 2008, pp. 1–23. Ottawa, 2007.

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